Understanding Our Fear of Death
Fear and guilt are the two core problems of human life. To live in the world, they are necessary in the right amounts. But when accumulated and in excess, they stifle life.
Fear as the primary emotion protects the body, and guilt as the social emotion, helps us in living a useful, social life.
There are two kinds of fear of death.
The first fear of death is biological (fear of the death of the body). Biological fear protects and preserves life.
The second fear can be either emotional or existential. Emotional fear of death results from psychological insecurity of the future. Existential fear of death is induced when we contemplate life, death, and the meaning and purpose of being alive in the world.
Guilt is the feeling of what we are supposed to do in our life, but not being able to do it. It also encompasses when we are able to do what we are supposed to do, but feel guilty for being selfish. Another type of guilt is the feeling of helplessness while our loved ones suffer.
The Reason Behind Fear of Death and Guilt
The emergence of ‘I’ or a sense of personal self is the cause of fear and guilt in humans. Initially, the emergence of “I” helps us to find our home in the world; however, the same home, beyond a point, becomes a prison. Our consciousness cannot evolve.
All forms of consciousness are available to us at any given point in time, but whether we are able to access that consciousness depends on the level of brain development.
In a single-cell organism, the whole cell is the brain. In reptiles, a distinct brain appears, which becomes more complex in mammals, and reaches its full complexity in us humans. By celebrating this complexity, we become self-aware and aware of the surrounding world. This remarkable capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection brings us the delight and joy of life. It can also bring about significant stress and also, the fear of death.
Although this self-awareness is present in some advanced animals such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and elephants, in humans it is expansive, extending into the remote past and into the distant future. We are aware, not only of our personal past but that of our country, race, or religion. We can also speculate about our future.
By the celebration of self-awareness and self-reflection, we have an inherent ability to connect our experiences in meaningful patterns, making us the most creative living beings on earth. Our capacity for self-reflection gives us the ability to restrain emotional impulses and delay gratification. This gives us control over ourselves so that we can plan for a better, more comfortable future.
However, this self-awareness comes at a cost. We are not only conscious of life and its beauty, but also of death. Individually and collectively, the core challenge for all human beings is the fear of death. However, it is not physical death that haunts us, but the certainty of the death of our identity. This fills us with fear, and we spend our lives trying to escape and transcend this reality.